- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

Chinese President Hu Jintao offered rhetoric in support of resolving economic concerns and nonproliferation efforts during his visit to Washington last week, and this was the most the Bush administration could have expected. The real measure of U.S.-China relations will be whether Mr. Hu’s commitments are swiftly enacted as real reforms.

After a meticulous planning process over months, last week’s ceremony was marked by three miscues. President Bush looked appropriately disappointed. The formal name of Taiwan, the Republic of China, was substituted for “Peoples Republic of China,” and a woman accredited to a newspaper published by the Falun Gong shouted rebukes of President Hu. President Bush tugged at Mr. Hu’s sleeve to keep him from leaving by the wrong end of the stage. All this upset the ceremony-minded Chinese, who dote on the ritual that is usually merely taken for what ritual is worth in the West, and the visiting delegation probably left with the impression that recent staff changes have not done much to improve organization at the White House.

China feels no need to defer to the United States any longer, evidenced by the refusal to release a token high-profile political prisoner, a gesture which before previous meetings would have been offered as a sign of a good-faith effort to improve human rights. Demanding that China make progress in human rights, which should be a high priority for any American administration, has been overtaken by concerns about money — economic policy and the role China will play in the international system.

Mr. Hu echoed the general goal of keeping both Iran and North Korea nuclear-free but refused to make a serious commitment to actually do anything. Despite loose statements from Mr. Hu — “China and the United States share extensive, common strategic goals” — Beijing will likely continue on its mercantilist path, protecting oil suppliers like Iran and Sudan. To China, Iran is a source of oil first and a security threat a distant second. Even on the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons, China has refused to use its influence to get the stagnant negotiations with the Kim regime moving again. China does not acknowledge the danger of continuing the status quo.

That the meeting concluded with little more than vague promises may be indicative of larger trends, and not just a continuation of the difficulty that American leaders have had winning firm and meaningful commitments from China’s communist leaders. It may be that U.S. and Chinese interests are simply not compatible. Even so, the administration should not give up trying to persuade Beijing that Chinese interests do still occasionally coincide with U.S. interests.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the U.S. trade deficit, which, if China refuses to work to resolve it, may inevitably lead to protectionist measures that would be harmful to both countries. Mr. Hu’s agreement to work on trade issues, as well as to do something about unchecked intellectual property rights violations in China, was welcome. But Washington should have pressed for specifics. Chinese leaders have made such promises in the past, and the promises turned out to be worthless.

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